|Horror of Dracula|
|Written by Bill Warren|
|Tuesday, 01 October 2002|
Not only is "Horror of Dracula" Hammer's best Dracula film, it's the best horror movie of the 1950s, and one of the best horror movies ever made by anyone, anywhere. Brisk, intelligent and handsomely produced, it's still effective today; this new DVD by Warners preserves the film in a superb print and 1.85:1 aspect ratio. Make no mistake: this isn't just another horror movie, it's something special.
It was Hammer's follow-up to "The Curse of Frankenstein," reuniting director Terence Fisher, scenarist Jimmy Sangster, and actors Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. (Supporting player Valerie Gaunt also reappears.) But it's far better than "The Curse of Frankenstein;" the script is much better structured, there's more suspense, more surprises, and an even better performance by Cushing. The film is almost compellingly watchable, condensing the events of Bram Stoker's novel into 81 swiftly-paced minutes. The only defect is a brief comedy scene near the end; an early mostly humorous scene featuring Miles Malleson actually works to further the plot.
And it does have a plot, though not much like Stoker's. Jonathan Harker (John Van Eyssen) arrives in a distant area of Europe (despite character names, the whole thing takes place in adjacent European countries) seeking Castle Dracula, where he is to begin work as a librarian for Count Dracula. But we understand from his voice-over diary that he has something else in mind.
The tall, elegant and cape-clad Count (Christopher Lee) greets Harker warmly, expressing admiration for a photograph of Harker's fiancee Lucy (Carol Marsh). But he locks Harker in his room at night. However, a woman (Valerie Gaunt) at Dracula's castle unlocks the door; Harker meets her in the library where at first she begs him to help her escape from Dracula -- and then bites him in the throat. But Dracula, his face smeared with blood, bursts into the room, and in an excitingly-staged, surprisingly energetic fight, disposes of Harker and sweeps out of the room, carrying the girl.
In a very creepy scene -- the movie has several -- when he later tries to deal with Dracula, Harker comes to a bad and off-screen end.
Later, we meet his associate, Dr. Van Helsing (Peter Cushing), a quiet, authoritative man who's made it his life's work to track down and destroy vampires. He and Harker have come to believe that Dracula is the central figure in the vampire mythos.
We also meet Lucy, Mina Holmwood (Melissa Stribling), and Mina's husband Arthur (Michael Gough), Lucy's brother. Having returned from a dismaying visit to Dracula's castle -- where he's almost run down by a hearse speeding away, carrying a white coffin -- Van Helsing informs them of Harker's death, but will not explain the circumstances.
However, when Lucy comes down with what's diagnosed as incurable anemia, Van Helsing's interest is seriously aroused. Still, the obdurate Arthur will not listen to his tales of the Undead. We already know that Lucy has been nocturnally visited by Count Dracula (in a pair of eerie, sexy-romantic and scary sequences), and that she's well on the way to becoming a vampire, despite transfusions, garlic and crosses. (She disposes of them.)
When she dies, at last, Arthur is convinced, and he and Van Helsing work together to try to protect Mina from the attentions of the Count. However, they cannot locate where he has hidden the coffin he must return to every sunrise, and Mina begins to grow pale....
Lively, intelligent and well-acted, "Horror of Dracula" is just about everything a well-made horror movie of the period needed to be. It does jettison some elements of Stoker's vampire mythology; the belief that they can turn into bats and wolves is, Van Helsing tells Arthur, "a common fallacy." (Even though in "Brides of Dracula," the first sequel to "Horror," the lead vampire does become a bat.) And it greatly shrinks Stoker's crowded cast to a few important players. What it retains is the straight-line plot that underlies Stoker's busy tale, and director Fisher treats it seriously and with even more energy than he brought to "The Curse of Frankenstein."
Cushing's role here is less showy than his Victor Frankenstein. Van Helsing is far quieter, much less driven; he has a life beyond chasing down vampires, but he is an expert on that subject. Cushing returned as Van Helsing in "Brides of Dracula," and later as what can be assumed to be a descendant of this Van Helsing in a pair of Dracula movies reuniting him with Christopher Lee. Cushing was always a precise, detailed actor, very fond of props which he manipulated to great, often amusing effect. He has one of his best props here, an early cylinder recorder which provides useful background information, and which Cushing operates with the cool skill of an audio pro. It's a very warm performance, exemplified by a scene near the end when he rescues a little girl from a vampire and wraps her in a warm coat.
In "The Curse of Frankenstein," even though he played Frankenstein's Monster, Christopher Lee had what amounted to a supporting role. But here, though often off-screen, he shares the lead with Peter Cushing. (In fact, in England the film was called "Dracula.") He's superb as Dracula, one of his best horror movie performances; he's intelligent but also a supernatural, demonic force. (His facial expressions in the library fights that open and close the film are very effective, even frightening.) He sweeps down cobblestone walks and up flights of stairs, two steps at a time (he seems to be floating). When he attacks women, it's partly out of lust for blood, and partly out of plain old lust. Lee liked to say he was presenting "the loneliness of evil," but Dracula seems very content to be a rapacious vampire, and not lonely at all.
The supporting cast is mostly quite good, although Michael Gough is a bit stiff as the stiff Arthur Holmwood. Both Melissa Stribling and Carol Marsh are very good as the principal women. Marsh has an especially good sequence after she becomes a vampire and confronts the horrified Arthur. "Come here my brother, and let me -- kiss you," she hisses. What follows is shocking and horrifying, and altogether new for vampire movies: Van Helsing's crucifix brands her forehead with an unpleasant sizzle.
"Horror of Dracula" was a relatively low-budget movie, as was "The Curse of Frankenstein," but Bernard Robinson's sets seem spacious and expensive. The interiors of Castle Dracula are especially impressive, with some Byzantine design elements (such as free-standing arches), balconies without railings, and a seemingly huge library. Despite the fact that there are only a few exterior scenes, "Horror of Dracula" seems expansive, even airy at times.
The first scene in the library, when Dracula enters with a leering, blood-smeared face, is one of the greatest and most influential shock scenes in movie history. Audiences leaped when he hissed his challenge, but the challenge was really to moviemakers: let's see you jokers top THIS. "The Curse of Frankenstein" opened a door; "Horror of Dracula" went through the door with a confrontational confidence. There had never been a vampire movie remotely like this before, and audiences the world over were ready for it.
Horror movies changed direction after "The Curse of Frankenstein" and "Horror of Dracula" the next year. Not only were now both Cushing AND Lee established as horror stars and Hammer as a pre-eminent horror studio, but the Grand Guignol horror elements of both films were an affront and a challenge. As writer David Pirie has pointed out, sometimes more IS more; classically, not showing the horrifying elements in horror movies was the way to go, and horror movies were made in the visual style of German cinema of the 1920s. But Hammer movies were emphatically mid-twentieth century, vividly gruesome, packed with energy and sex, and altogether something different. The changes they began have never faded away; horror movies today would not be what they are without the impact of Hammer.
It's a damned shame, therefore, that while presenting both "The Curse of Frankenstein" and "Horror of Dracula" in the best prints they've ever had on home video, they could not, would not, provide any real supplemental material. As with "Curse," "Horror of Dracula" features a brief history of the sequels, error-ridden and very slight. There's also a trailer for the film -- and nothing else. Yet there are stills showing scenes that were cut, the films were both shown in more violent editions in Japan, and this stuff should have been included. Certainly the stills, easily obtained, should have been a supplement. But instead, Warners is essentially throwing away two major titles of horror movie history. The prints are excellent, yes, but the DVDs could and should have been so much more than they are.